BOISE — Inmates are sleeping on the floors of county jails by the dozens in Boise, Twin Falls and Pocatello, state lawmakers learned Monday, for lack of space in the jails and lack of money to expand them.
Washington County Commissioner Kirk Chandler said with his county’s budget crunch, “We don’t have a deputy on at night.” Just the other day, he said, a robbery was reported at 3 a.m. “There’s no one on duty.”
Clearwater County just got done striping its roads, but only had enough money to paint the fog lines, said Sheriff Chris Goetz. “There are no center lines,” he said, “because there was no money to do that.”
At the same time, complaints about dramatically rising property taxes are inundating local and state officials, and that’s why the Legislature’s Property Tax Working Group was hearing from county officials and others on Monday. While some contended local governments should just spend less to ease property taxes, county officials said they’re required by state law to provide services, and the state’s growing population needs them. Meanwhile, others said residents could be taxed out of their homes.
“In 1999, I bought a home in Eagle,” Patrick Chapman told the panel. “I bought what I could afford. … I’ve been there for 20 years now, because this is my home.” But recently, he said, the property next door to him went on the market for $375,000, “more than twice what I paid for my house.” His value is shooting up, and he’s afraid he won’t be able to afford the taxes to keep his home. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
Star real estate agent Kim Wickstrum told the lawmakers, “High property taxes reduce the affordability index for people who want to purchase a home.”
Russ Hendricks, lobbyist for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, asked, “Should we continue to incentivize growth if it’s forcing us to put in infrastructure that we can’t really afford?”
Former longtime eastern Idaho state Rep. Tom Loertscher said, “What we’ve done by allowing county commissioners to write off property taxes for new businesses is just fundamentally wrong. … That should be repealed. They should be taxed like any other business.”
Mark Mitton, Burley city administrator, said, “I know this is an issue that needs to be addressed, but I don’t think you can address it with a blanket.”
Rural areas aren’t seeing the same issues with property taxes, he said. “I’d just be concerned about any legislation that would hurt rural areas.”
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, repeatedly questioned the public officials who spoke, disputing whether they were being sufficiently frugal.
Moyle has expressed interest in changing the current state law that allows county property tax-supported budgets to grow by 3 percent a year plus new construction, suggesting the new construction factor should be limited.
When Seth Grigg, head of the Idaho Association of Counties, told Moyle that overall county property tax budgets have been growing at 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent a year when both those factors are taken into account, Moyle asked if the rest of their funds were also growing by similar amounts, saying, “That makes the case to do away with new construction — these guys are flush!”
Grigg said while state revenue sharing funds that counties receive are growing, they make up only 12 percent of county budgets; federal funds that counties receive actually have been dropping.
Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane said, “Without the new construction roll, it would be impossible to run a jurisdiction like Ada County or any of the cities here. New construction is not a new tax on everybody. It is incorporating all that new growth into the base budget. … We have to keep up with all the new demand that we have.”
Bannock County Commissioner Terrel Tovey said, “About 85 to 90 percent of all county functions are requirements of the state.”
Twin Falls County Commissioner Don Hall told the lawmakers, “We agree that we need to do something, but taking away funding sources that we have without giving us replacement streams would be near impossible for us, without gutting the services that we provide.”
After Monday’s four-hour hearing, Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, the House co-chairman of the working group, said they had received good information, both at Monday’s meeting and at the group’s previous meeting.
“It’s answered some questions, but it opens up whole new ones,” he said. “I want to make a real effort to try to look at what some other states have done.”
Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, the Senate co-chair, said, “One of the things that has become very clear to me is the diversity of the state with regard to property taxes. … It’s going to be a real challenge to do something that will work for everybody.”
The panel hasn’t yet set its next meeting date.